The hidden byways, the little surprises, the discovered dining spot are in some ways what make Chester, New Jersey, so beguiling.
Chester is in southwestern Morris County. The Borough enjoys a flourishing commercial area while most of the land area in the 1.45 square miles of our community is devoted to single family housing. Chester itself was established as a separate entity in 1799, at which time "Chester" meant the area of both the Township and the downtown Village area which came to be the Borough. The Borough of Chester was incorporated in 1930, and is today a separate municipality surrounded by Chester Township.
The earliest settlers in Chester came in 1640 when "Black River" established itself as a settlement primarily because of the intersection of two Lenape Indian trails. These old trails, used for hundreds of years by the native Americans were traversed by the early settlers to go to all regions of New Jersey.ants. Main Street grew around these village Inns, and businesses were established.
Mechanical devices were required to process and transport the local peach crops to distant markets. The Van Doren brothers opened a threshing machine manufacturing business in the village and introduced the first steam engine into Morris County. There were blacksmiths making hardware and nails and repairing wagons and carriages. There was a brick yard near Cooper Lane. Distilleries were everywhere. Gristmills appeared on "every corner." At one time there were seven water powered mills on the Black River between the Cooper Mill and the lower Hacklebarney Mill. The Civil War was brewing, and it would begin a profound change in Chester Township from agriculture to mining and manufacturing.
While Chester Township hosted no fighting during the Civil War, it did provide a stop on the Underground Railroad used by freed or escaping slaves. Before the War, slaves were common in Chester Township. The barred cellar windows in the Publik House and in the Nathan Cooper Mansion are testimony to this. In 1875, iron ore in huge quantities was discovered behind a house on Main Street by a man digging for an ice house foundation.
In the village area of Chester Township, sounds of separation were heard for the first time in the 1920s. Development had led to water supply problems that made the need for a public water system popular, a project not appealing to the surrounding farmers whose tax dollars would help pay for it. In 1930, the Borough of Chester incorporated as a separate municipality with its own water system. The Great Depression helped close what was left of the railroads, aided by faster more comfortable automobiles. The Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps affected many Chester lives during the 1930s. Hacklebarney State Park was a depression era project and thousands of evergreen trees were planted in Chester Township just prior to World War II.
Chester Township and Chester Borough remains an attractive community offering a "country" atmosphere together with good schools, excellent services, a downtown village business area, and large parks, recreational facilities, and easy access to cultural centers.
Who invented the curveball? In Chester, the answer is Billy Dee, who lived here at 71 East Main Street. He had been postmaster, shopkeeper and a Morris County freeholder from 1913 to 1916. He is best remembered, however, for his ball-playing. He is reported by the Newark News newspaper in 1881 to have pitched the very first curve ball in the history of baseball, when his finger caught in the covering of the ball. The Baseball Hall Of Fame names William Arthur “Candy” Cummings of the Boston Excelsiors. Baseball lore also includes a competing claim of Fred Goldsmith of the Cincinnati Reds.
Spotlight on Chester! The hidden byways, the little surprises, the discovered dining spot are in some ways what make Chester, New Jersey, so beguiling.
Sure, Main Street greets you with open arms, its unique shops luring you inside to make a charming purchase that will leave a smile on your face the rest of the day. The Streets of Chester offers high-end fashion but, with the stationary store Papyrus, also asserts that writing with ink on paper is still fashionable. Alstede Farms brings visitors close to the earth, allowing them to pick fresh fruit, pet farm animals and get lost in a corn maze.
Sally Lunn's Tea Room
Take an adventurous turn down a side street and you might stumble on A World of Birds or You’re Not in Kansas Anymore or Sally Lunn’s Tea Room. Sally Lunn’s is a little piece of English gentility tucked away behind Main Street between Warren and Perry streets. The white embroidered tablecloths, the tea settings displayed on the walls and the solicitous English hostesses set the mood.
The menu is quintessentially English, offering egg salad and cress sandwiches, cottage pie and Cornish pasties. Tea drinkers can chose from 60 different blends, including such startling varieties as licorice and Russian gunpowder.
These attractions, hidden or in plain sight, draw crowds in all seasons, but Chester takes on a special flavor in the autumn.
Visitors to 600-acre Alstede Farms can go on Harvest Moon Hayrides, choose a pumpkin for Halloween or pick apples, raspberries, elderberries and Indian corn.
And of course the corn maze is just the sort of things kids want to explore with the possibility of getting lost adding a little jolt of excitement. Kurt Alstede, who launched Alstede Farms with a little patch of cherry tomatoes in 1982, said this year’s maze theme will be the 200th anniversary of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” “We find people really have a yearning desire to return to their agricultural roots,” Alstede said, when discussing reasons that draw visitors to his farm. The farms grows hundreds of fruits and vegetables which families can pick, starting with strawberries at the end of May and running through potatoes, pumpkins, gourds and Indian corn in November.
“That combines with people’s desire to have a fun family activity,” Alstede said. “We offer a family activity that’s relatively inexpensive, that’s outside. There’s no electronic distractions … And the farm is beautiful.” Children can clamber on the hay bale pyramid or feed friendly goats and donkeys that are always eager for a handout. After all that activity, a trip to the farm store for homemade ice cream is a must.
Once in the store, though, only those with the greatest of will power can emerge without making a purchase. Lined up on shelves to tempt visitors are peach-praline pies, apple caramel cakes, peach fudge, pumpkin butter and raspberry-lime jam to name but a few. The large number of events and activities at Alstede Farms can be found at alstedefarms.com.
Having completed the farm experience, it’s easy to jump on the shuttle and head to downtown Chester where many of the historic buildings date from the 19th century. Kathy Barbieri’s Chester Crafts and Collectibles is housed in the Centennial Building, built in 1876. As president of the Historic Chester Business Association (chesternj.org), Barbieri can speak with some authority about why people come to Chester.
“It has the historic downtown shopping and dining,” she said. “We have over 80 stores right here in the historic district. They’re little boutique shops. They have everything. We offer everything down here from antiques, crafts, home décor. We have interior design services, home accessories, furniture. “Then we also have Streets of Chester which is right over here on (Route) 206. That’s a shopping center. They have a very high end tenant lineup. So again it’s a different type of shopping experience.”
Downtown Chester is best experienced on foot. Along either side of Main Street are little shops with names like Ladyfingers, Winky’s Pet Boutique, Midnight Owl and the Sweet Spot Bake Shoppe. Walk into Chester Crafts and Collectibles and there’s that hand-painted saw blade you didn’t know you wanted but now can’t live without.
On the north side of Main Street is the Publick House, a good place to stop for lunch and soak up some history. It was built in 1810 by Zephaniah Drake to serve as a hotel and tavern, which has been its primary function for more than 200 years. Recently it has made rooms available for overnight stays.
There is no shortage of food in Chester. More than twenty eating establishments offer sustenance ranging from Italian to Thai cuisines to decadent chocolates, all listed in the Historic Chester brochure that is available in all the shops and on the shuttle buses.
Chester is also a town that takes its fairs and festivals seriously. The annual Harvest Celebration features a pet costume parade. On Oct. 31 is the Halloween Costume Parade as well as trick-or-treating at the Main Street shops. The spring and fall craft shows draw exhibitors from all over the country.
After darting in and out of quaint shops on Main Street, it may be time for some hardcore 21st-century shopping. That’s where Streets of Chester comes in. A shopping center located on Route 206 just south of Main Street, its 25 stores include the Gap, Banana Republic, Ann Taylor, and J. Crew. For a complete listing, go to streetsofchester.com.
Streets of Chester also features a unique eating experience – Truck Stop Gourmet Eatery. Here are gourmet food trucks offering traditional American cuisine, burgers, crepes and sandwiches, and Korean, Mexican and Thai specialties.
The shopping center brings visitors full circle, from the 19th century back to the 21st. Then as the sun goes down it’s time for weary legs to settle down into the car or the shuttle, arms laden with purchases.
On second thought, maybe you should have bought that piece of jewelry or that wooden puzzle box or that scrumptious pie. That makes a perfect excuse to return to Chester another time.